Topics in the News
The Automobile and the American Dream.
In the 1930s cars were the nation's symbol of leisure, convenience, and security. Middle-class and farming families were understandably reluctant to give up driving even in the worst years of the Depression. As the country reeled from the effects of the stock-market crash, the auto industry seemed resistant to the Depression. Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd noted in 1932 that the Depression had not changed the public's commitment to automobiles. Car ownership, the Lynds concluded, was synonymous for many Americans with self-respect and the American dream.
Of Bulls and Cars.
The American automobile industry embodied the weaknesses of the national economy in the late 1920s. Throughout the heyday of the 1920s the industry saturated the market with cars by coming out with new models each year and encouraging buyers to purchase new models rather than maintaining existing ones. Consumers traded in their now "old" cars for rebates and agreed to pay for new cars over a three-year period. The line between socalled old and new cars was established through design and styling. While such emphasis on styling brought important innovations to car design, this selling strategy based on planned obsolescence also left automakers such as Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors (GM) short of cash, as they invested...
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No More Flappers.
The Depression of the 1930s left little in the United States unchanged. As with other sectors of the economy, the crisis profoundly shaped what Americans wore, what they bought, and what they desired. Overnight, the high-spirited look of the flapper evaporated; the long, lean, tubular chemise, the signature look of the fashionable woman, disappeared. In its place a mature elegance emerged. Ageless, classless, and reusable looks that were flexible, reasonably priced, and easy to accessorize reflected the style of the 1930s and the new sobriety of the nation's collective mood.
Yet while most of the country suffered the effects of the stock-market crash, many of the nation's wealthiest families continued to make money throughout the decade. High society went on unabated by Hoovervilles, food lines, and strikes. Families such as Chicago's Marshall Fields, Boston's Kennedys, and New York's Vanderbilts threw lavish parties, covered their women with jewelry, and bought fancy Paris originals. Many women in such families competed with Hollywood stars in setting fashion trends.
December debutante balls, in which families "introduced" their sixteen-and seventeen-year-old daughters to society, were among the decade's most striking fashion events. Such...
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The 1930s opened with some of the most dramatic applications of art deco to modern skyscrapers. The art deco style originated in Europe and became widely popular in the United States in the 1920s. Characterized by its geometric patterns, surface ornamentation, and rich materials, art deco styling could be found in entrance portals and elevator lobbies, where the display of fancy metalwork, colored marbles, and contrasting wood veneers could be fully seen and appreciated. Architects William Van Alen, along with John and Donald Parkinson, among others, took art deco to new heights—literally. Van Alen's crown for the Chrysler Building in New York (1928-1930) terminated in a needlelike spire that rose from diminishing semicircles, with each circle set with a zigzag of triangular windows. Recognizing that it was the top of the skyscraper that gave it a distinctive identity, Van Alen broke new ground.
Image Pop-UpAn eclectic blend of organic form with modern materials, the Johnson Wax Company Adminstration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, is one of many Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces.
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Goodbye Europe, Hello America.
Many cash-poor Americans hit the road in the 1930s with a vengeance and by doing so transformed the landscape. Tourist courts, with shanty cafes and gas pumps, sprang up on highways all over the country, hoping to tempt drivers to buy ice cream, sodas, and trinkets. Since the mid 1920s the American public's celebration of the automobile had included road trips. As the Depression and oil strikes lowered gasoline prices, America's appetite for travel seemed endless. For many, road travel seemed the quickest way to escape the grinding misery of economic hard times. Some Americans traveled by car to relocate in California in hope of finding work, while others simply drove as recreation. As the federal government expanded the nation's public parks, camping mushroomed. The tourist court, a clustering of amenities including washrooms, single-room cabins, and restaurants, sprouted up to serve nomadic Americans.
Throughout the Depression both federal and state governments levied gasoline taxes to finance massive road construction projects, which greatly improved tourism. Some travelers opted to visit newly opened national parks in the 1930s, such as Williamsburg, Virginia; the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina; Nags Head in North Carolina; and the National Shore Line...
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American design underwent an enormous transformation in the 1930s. Inspired by technology and a fascination with the machine, Streamline Moderne was a rigorously modern aesthetic that emphasized speed and efficiency. Shedding the eclecticism of Victorianism and its ornate designs, historicism, and
Modernism in Motion.
The most popular and influential source of the new aesthetic was the Zephyr high-speed train. First designed by engineer Edward G. Budd, the stainless steel, lightweight 1932 Zephyr translated the aerodynamic principles of modern airplanes to ground transportation. The Zephyr's smooth curves, rounded corners, and powerful diesel engines replaced the older square steel and wooden trains. This generation of high-speed trains, which also included the Super Chief and the M-10001, reached speeds of 120 miles per hour while using a fraction of the fuel consumed...
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Variations in Home Design
As the United States slipped deeper into hard times in the 1930s, manufacturers turned to industrial designers in hopes of stimulating plummeting sales. Manufacturers challenged industrial designers to develop a visual idiom capable of communicating such positive thoughts as "up-to-date," "technologically advanced," and "modern" for their products and thus attract an uncertain buying public. Leading industrial designers, including Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, and Walter Dorwin Teague, set about reinventing a range of household gadgets from irons to blenders. They were influenced by the rounded corners and streamlining of modern airplanes, trains, and automobiles. Radio cabinets, furniture, pens, toasters, and silverware appeared in shiny metals with curves, etchings, and the appearance of technological advancement.
The Tubular Chair.
Several important modern architects experimented with furniture design in the 1930s. In 1925 Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer, a student of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, designed his first tubular chair, whose simple lines gained popularity in the 1930s. Composed of two leather squares framed by parallel steel tubes, the chair was shaped like the numeral 5 without the horizontal top. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1930 Barcelona chair and Alvar Aalto's 1934 lounge chair followed...
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Carnegie, Hattie 1889-1956
From Hats to Dresses.
Hattie Carnegie, born Henriett a Kanengeiser in Vienna in 1889, was one of the premier dress designers of the 1930s. Not only did she make her mark through her elegant designs, she also trained a generation of fashion designers that shaped American style for decades. Carnegie started her career as a milliner. Her father, an artist and designer, introduced her to the world of fashion and design, and by age fifteen she had found work trimming hats. Five years later she opened a shop on East Tenth Street in New York called Carnegie—Ladies Hatter. The shop was successful, and within a few years she moved to the tony Upper West Side, where she took up dress design. However, she never learned to sew. A friend explained that "Hattie couldn't sew a fine seam, but she had a feeling about clothes and a personality to convey her ideas to the people who were to work them out." She changed the name of her business in 1914 to Hattie Carnegie, Inc., and by the 1920s was the toast of the fashion world from her new location in the Upper East Side.
"Simple, Beautiful Clothes."
Carnegie's belief in simplicity fit perfectly with the streamlining of 1930s design. She believed that "simple, beautiful clothes … enhance the charm of the woman who wears them. If you have a dress that is too often...
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Dache, Lilly 1913-1990
The Well-Designed Hat.
"A hat that is well designed never goes out of fashion," claimed Lilly Dache. "I wear some of mine three and four years." Dache was the best-known milliner of the 1930s. By 1940 she had produced around nine thousand hats, which sold for twenty-five dollars at forty-seven department stores across the country. In the 1930s she was best-known for her half-hat, a hat with a narrow brim and crown that sat on the back of the head. The millinery industry embraced the half-hat as its best weapon against what it called the insanity of "the hatless craze." Dache was also attributed with starting the popularity of the turban in the 1930s.
Bicycle Cap as Inspiration.
From age ten Dache displayed a flair for original hats. When her mother ordered her a traveling suit composed of a black-and-white checkered skirt and bright red jacket, Dache promptly stopped at a bicycle store and bought herself a red cap to go with her new outfit. She never completed her purchase, as the store owner sought confirmation from her mother. Yet the experience left its mark on the young Dache: no collection she designed was ever without the visored cap for travel.
Born in Beiles, France, Dache started sewing doll clothes at a young age from expensive...
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Gropius, Walter 1883-1969
Founder of the Bauhaus.
Walter Gropius's philosophy, his functionalist designs, and his renowned teaching abilities profoundly influenced the modern movement in Western architecture. As chairman of the Department of Architecture in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, he headed the top architecture school in the United States from 1938 to 1952. Under his direction Harvard architecture students began learning by doing, a technique he applied at the Bauhaus, the German school of architecture and design he had established in the early 1900s. While at Bauhaus, Gropius made a name for himself in architecture, furniture design, industrial design, and city planning. Other examples of his work include residences, housing developments, prefabricated houses, theaters, academic buildings, and factories constructed in the United States, Germany, and England.
Walter Adolf Gropius was born on 18 May 1883 in Berlin, Germany, to a family long associated with architecture and painting. Having intended from an early age to become an architect, Gropius volunteered to work in the firm of...
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Hawes, Elizabeth 1903-1971
DESIGNER AND CRITIC
Selling Dresses and Opinions.
Throughout the 1930s Elizabeth Hawes built a reputation in dress design and fashion commentary. Her best-known book, Fashion Is Spinach (1938), debunked the endless search for newness driving the fashion industry. Style is functional, she claimed in her best-seller. But fashion, that "deformed thief/' was based purely on the whims of designers and manufacturers, she claimed. Her battle cry throughout the 1930s was that a good dress could last for more than one season.
Hawes began making clothes as a child in Ridgewood, New Jersey. By age nine she sewed her own clothes, and at twelve she made clothes for her mother's friends' children. She wanted to go to art school, but her mother insisted she attend Vassar College. During summer break of her sophomore year she attended Parson's School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York. The next summer, in 1924, she went to work as an unpaid apprentice at Bergdorf Goodman, convinced that art school would not teach her what she needed to know.
Living in Paris.
After graduating in 1925, Hawes was determined to go to work in Paris to learn the fashion business firsthand. She found a job at a Paris copy house that followed famous French designers. In 1928 she...
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James, Charles 1906-1978
Proving American Style Sensibility.
Designer Charles James was instrumental in introducing American high fashion to Europe. Widely respected for his original dresses, he was unique among American designers in the 1930s in that he operated on the Paris pattern, creating clothes for private clients and then selling the original models to leading stores throughout the United States. In 1952 he entered the wholesale business, making his designs available to the general public through mass production. In 1955 he opened his own retail stores.
Charles Wilson Brega James was born in England in 1906. Finding school dull, he refused to attend the college his father had chosen for him. Instead, he went to work with a family friend who taught him the basics of business. In 1927 James moved to the United States and opened a dress shop in New York. He presented his first collection in London in 1928 and opened European branches in London and Paris.
Life in Europe.
James's business took off in the 1930s. He began producing designs, including linens, accessories, and sportswear, for American buyers such as Best and Company, Marshall Field, Taylor Importing Company, and Casino Frocks. He divided his time between London and Paris while regularly...
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King, Muriel 1900-1977
Muriel King preached the importance of designing dresses that looked good the first, second, and third season well before the Depression of the 1930s. Good design, she believed, never went out of fashion. Her philosophy of classic fashion served her well in the 1930s, as consumers who could do so stopped replacing their wardrobes each season and looked for clothes that would look good for years.
As a girl King dreamed of being an artist. After studying art at the University of Washington she went to New York to study fashion at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. While in school she freelanced as a fashion artist for Women's Wear Daily, Vogue, and various New York department stores, which she continued to do throughout the 1920s, Friends encouraged her to design her own clothes, and in 1932 she began. She was proclaimed the creator of fashions that revealed "the artist's impatience with monotony/' and her designs were introduced by Lord and Taylor, a New York department store. Each of the originals accompanying her debut was priced at $125, with copies ranging irom $29.50 to-$49.50.
Striking Out Alone.
A few months after her debut King opened her first salon. Taking a risk by...
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An Architect of Dress.
A leading member of haute couture, Valentina considered herself an aichitect of dress. Claiming inspitation from Grecian architecture, she used fabrics to accentuate their textures, shadows, and high-lights in order to create the desired architectural effect. "Color," she once explained, "should never be obvious, static, or flat" but rather should move and flow. Commentators agreed that she achieved dramatic effects in her gowns without, as one put it, "resorting to extreme cuts."
She was born Valentina Sanina in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1904 to a wealthy family. Her education at the school of dramatic arts in Kiev was interrupted by the Russian Revolution in 1917, in which her mother and brother were killed. At fifteen she fled alone to the Crimean peninsula, carrying only the family's jewels. Two years later she married and immigrated to Athens, where the couple struggled to survive. In 1923 she moved to New York City, where she began designing clothes.
Establishing a Name.
After a series of efforts in different fashion salons, the husband-and-wife team opened Valentina Gowns, Inc., in 1928 and soon began to make a profit. Valentina's dresses were complicated and difficult to reproduce. She believed that...
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Wright, Frank Lloyd 1867-1959
America's Premier Architect.
One of the world's most famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright had a profound and enduring effect on Western architecture. His professional career spanned seventy years, starting with a revival of past styles and continuing through the beginnings of modern architecture, a movement in which he played a major role. Throughout his career he maintained a strong reverence for life and nature. His architecture was always far ahead of the work of other architects. He was a creative innovator and experimented throughout his long career with structure, using great steel and concrete cantilevers and poured concrete. He was one of the first architects to see the design capability of concrete blocks, designing buildings of custom-cast blocks with patterns. He also introduced open planning in buildings, letting spaces flow into each other rather than enclosing them with walls. He was interested in machines and was an early advocate of factory-manufactured products in his buildings....
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People in the News
New York department store Bonwit Teller hired Spanish painter Salvador Dali to design a group of its store windows, marking the influence of Surrealism on American fashion.
Lewis Gannett, conservationist, was one of the earliest critics of the automobile's impact on national parks, complaining in 1937 that "the floor of Yosemite is an amusement park, as crowded a city as New York's Central Park.… Nothing in America is less wild than … Yosemite Valley."
Noting the growing dependence on the car in Los Angeles, critic Douglas Haskell commented in Architectural Record in 1937 that "Los Angeles is a city built on the automobile as Boston was built on the sailing ship. It appears to the casual view as a series of parking lots interspersed with buildings."
In 1934 entrepreneur Richard M. Hollingshead jr., with help from Willis Warren Smith, formed Park-In Theaters, a chain of drive-in movie houses. Business proved so good that they franchised Park-In Theaters for one thousand dollars each plus 5 percent of gross earnings.
At the 1931 Conference on Home Building, President Herbert Hoover explained the significance of home ownership to the American dream. The aspiration to own a home, he said, "penetrates the heart of our national well being.… There can be no fear for a democracy or...
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Clement C. Cassell, 70, architect of Roosevelt Park, a colony for the elderly in Millville, New Jersey, sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, 1 November 1939.
F. Bunham Chapman, 53, beaux arts architect, 29 April 1935.
Frank Davis Chase, 60, industrial architect, designer of plants for the Saint Louis Star-Times, the Oklahoman, and the Milwaukee Journal, 21 July 1937.
Arthur Dillon, 66, architect of Atlanta's Masonic Temple and All Saints Episcopal Church, 7 January 1938.
Frederick Dinkelberg, 74, architect of the Hayworth Building in Chicago, 18 February 1935.
Isaac E. Ditmars, 84, architect of many Catholic churches and institutions, 26 February 1934.
William J. East, 71, architect for more than 150 ecclesiastical buildings, 3 May 1936.
Vincent J. Eck, 45, architect for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, 23 May 1938.
George W. Eckles, 65, architect of many schools, colleges, hotels, and churches, 5 March 1932.
Gilbert Gass, 75, architect well-known for his beaux arts buildings such as the U.S. Custom House (1907) and the Woolworth Building (1913), both in New York City, 19 May 1934....
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Naum Gabo and others, eds., Circle: Survey of Constructive Art (London: Faber &Faber, 1937);
Walter Gropius, The Bauhaus: 1919-1928 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1938);
Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhausy translated by P. Morton Shand (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1935);
Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion Is Spinach (New York: Random House, 1938);
Hawes, Men Can Take It (New York: Random House, 1939);
Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1932);
Jonathan R. Leonard, The Tragedy of Henry Ford (New York: Putnam, 1932);
Robert S. Lynd and Helen M. Lynd, Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937);
Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, 5 volumes (New York: Longmans, Green, 1932-1943);
Wright, An Organic Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy (London: Lund Humphries, 1939);
Wright and Baker Brownell, Architecture and Modern Life (New York: Harper, 1938);
Architectural Recordy periodical;
Women's Wear Daily, periodical....
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Important Events in Fashion and Design, 1930–1939
- In women's fashion, the chemise, popular in the 1920s, is now belted and lengthened. Cut on the bias, dresses hug and move with the body.
- Architect Raymond Hood completes the Daily News Building in New York City. With its lively cubist pattern of red and black bricks, it is one of the foremost examples of art deco architecture.
- Developer Hugh Prather plans and builds Highland Park Shopping Village in Dallas, Texas, the first unified commercial development where stores surround a parking lot rather than facing the street.
- In response to the stock-market crash, independent automakers Willy-Overland and Hudson produce one-third fewer cars than in 1929.
- Auto factories cut wages, shorten the workweek, institute periodic shutdowns, and fire thousands in an effort to cut costs.
- Ford's forty-horsepower Model A is hugely popular, and 1.15 million cars are sold.
- Reflecting a new interest in simple, ordinary fabrics, French designers Jean Patou and Gabrielle Chanel show elegant evening clothes made of cotton and cotton variants such as organdy.
- The Chrysler Building opens in New York City. Designed by William Van Alen, it is a testimony to art deco with its crown of zigzag triangular windows. For...
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